The list of those drivers seeking to get into the Verizon IndyCar Series full-time, or find a new ride for the 2017 season, is long and mixed in terms of experience levels.
There’s that mix of young, hungry lions looking to make that step up from their time in the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires or European ladder system. Then there’s the older veterans who are trying to make one more switch to get one or two more good years for them near the end of their career.
And then, in the middle, is a 28-year-old American badass driver who’s been out of the cockpit on a full-time basis for far too long, who is way too talented, and who can instantly fit in as a plug-and-play replacement for Josef Newgarden at Ed Carpenter Racing.
It’s long past time for “Captain America,” JR Hildebrand, to be back in a full-time effort in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
And it would make the most sense for ECR to continue its trajectory towards the top of the grid after its growth and development over five years to promote Hildebrand to a full-time seat.
In the last five years, with the full-time disappearance of several smaller and/or midfield teams – Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, Panther Racing, HVM, Conquest Racing, Dragon Racing among others – so too have disappeared the opportunities for younger drivers to step up into IndyCar and progress further up the grid.
Hildebrand was one of those drivers who premiered with a team that is no longer on the grid, and he often overachieved. His time with Panther Racing produced a driver excellent at nearly all the elements you need to do to be successful in this sport. Between his smarts, his feedback, his pace and his relationship with partners and the media, Hildebrand was destined to become a rising star in the sport.
His first two years saw him finish 14th and 11th in the points. In 2012, Hildebrand finished ahead of Rubens Barrichello, Oriol Servia, Takuma Sato, Justin Wilson, Marco Andretti, Alex Tagliani, Carpenter, E.J. Viso, Josef Newgarden and Simona de Silvestro among full-season drivers.
The knock on Hildebrand was that he made a few too many mistakes. Obviously, there was Turn 4 at Indy in 2011… he’ll never get that moment back, but at the same point, he handled defeat in as classy a way as was possible, and rewarded by team boss John Barnes with a mint 1966 Chevrolet Chevelle SS for his efforts. Then there was St. Petersburg 2013, when he crashed into Will Power under yellow, and his early crash at the Indianapolis 500 the same year, which marked his last race with Panther.
Young drivers will always make mistakes in this business but few had Hildebrand’s pedigree coming into the sport, and so you could excuse them.
A past USF2000 champion and star in the Atlantic Championship, Hildebrand then delivered a beat down on the rest of one of the deepest Indy Lights fields on record in 2009. He won the title by nearly 100 points over a field that included 12 future IndyCar drivers, including 2016 competitors James Hinchcliffe, Charlie Kimball, Stefan Wilson and Pippa Mann.
Since his time as a full-time driver ended midway through 2013, Hildebrand has only made seven more starts, but he’s made an impact in five of them – which is not easy to do as a part-time driver.
Hildebrand was in win contention in his second and last start with Bryan Herta Autosport at Fontana in 2013, before an engine failure ended his hopes there.
He’s banked three straight top-10 finishes in the Indianapolis 500 in an extra Ed Carpenter Racing entry, and this year marked his best win chance yet with his pace all month. He led four laps and finished sixth.
And then he’s been in contention for top-10s in both Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis road course races, which is particularly impressive when you consider he was making his first start of the year in both cases with a new crew and with one of the last two pit boxes. He’d also been out of the cockpit for nearly a calendar year on both occasions. Only mechanical gremlins and fuel issues have prevented solid results in those two races.
Where Hildebrand raised his stock even more this year was as Newgarden’s designated injury fill-in and test driver de jour throughout the year.
He tested at Road America, Iowa and Mid-Ohio and it was no coincidence that Newgarden delivered several of his best races – the Iowa win in particular – thanks to Hildebrand’s feedback and setup.
Newgarden in fact took extra time to thank Hildebrand after the Iowa win because his baseline information was what helped put the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet on rails.
“I have to give a shout out to JR Hildebrand. He made it that much better,” Newgarden said at the time. “Unfortunately we weren’t able to test. But JR, I don’t think we realize how lucky we are to have someone like him at our disposal whenever we need it.
“We took a great car that we had last year that I think was a race-winning car, he made it better with his input.
“JR is so good. I mean, to me JR Hildebrand should be in a car right now. I think he should be driving full-time personally. That’s easier said than done. It takes a lot of money to put these cars on the track.
“The caliber of driver that he is, he should be driving already. He’s not a test driver. I think he’s just a great driver. So for us to have him available to us is pretty fortunate.”
It also spoke volumes of Hildebrand’s feedback that INDYCAR asked him to be one of two designated test drivers for new aero components at Mid-Ohio, because his input will help determine the next round of aero for the series.
Carpenter’s team has ascended through the IndyCar field the last few years with Newgarden at the helm and so when choosing its next driver from a full-time standpoint, there are options.
Bigger names – if available – would come in the form of joint Indianapolis 500 and series champions Juan Pablo Montoya and Tony Kanaan. There’s also more experienced drivers such as Servia or Tagliani, but neither would move the needle among the fan base.
Could Carpenter opt to promote Spencer Pigot from the road course and street course races in the second car? It’s possible, but Pigot could benefit more from a more experienced teammate in a second car for his own growth or maturation. Other young guns like past Indy Lights champions Gabby Chaves and Sage Karam could work, as could Conor Daly, if he doesn’t return to Dale Coyne Racing.
But Carpenter has the perfect replacement sitting in his court already and the driver with which he could continue the team’s growth, and Hildebrand has unfinished business from his first go-’round in IndyCar with a team that didn’t provide the best working atmosphere.
It makes too much sense…